Bay Tripper October 2007

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Fresh start for a Friendship Sloop

Fresh start for a Friendship Sloop

The vintage gaff-rigger Sarah Mead may have finished dead last in the last two Friendship Sloop Homecoming Regattas, but it’s a wonder she even made it to Rockland, Maine, for the mid-July outings. Still, her performances weren’t a disgrace, since the annual regatta — and Friendship Sloop ownership — is mostly about pride, tradition and a state of mind.

Sarah Mead was saved last year from impending doom by a son-and-pop team that now operates her for charter. The 30-footer (LOD) came with a proud racing pedigree, but they found her in a barn after she had been rigged with a Marconi mainsail and aluminum mast and lifelines. Co-captains Nate Jones, 24, and father Randy, 52, had to motor (no wind) to the RocklandHarbor race course from her home base in MuscongusHarbor, near Boothbay. It turned out to be a grand reunion of the sloop’s original owner, with the namesake Sarah Mead herself coming along for the final race.

Not expecting any recognition at the awards dinner under a tent on shore, the Jones family — including Nate’s wife, Heather, and his mother, Lois — didn’t hang around for the trophy presentation. They were pleasantly surprised, however, when they got word of an annual non-professional builder/restorer/owner award presented to them for their ongoing rehab of Sarah.

Nate and Randy are only in their second year of ownership, and sailing Sarah has been a learning experience for both, especially the father, who retired in July as a small-town police chief in North Berwick. “Everything she earns goes back into her upkeep and upgrading,” says Nate, who has a full-time job running a commercial dive boat and handles Sarah on weekends. Randy sails her during the week in their “six-pack” charter business out of the private MuscongusHarbor. They obtained Coast Guard captains’ licenses together.

It was my pleasure to be on board Sarah for three scheduled races. The first was abandoned because of no wind, and the next was barely completed for the same reason. The final race, however, was carried out in a good, lively breeze. A friend had chartered Sarah for the regatta, remembering his younger days of operating a Friendship Sloop (Lady) in daysails out of Rockland 30 years ago. Later, as a schooner captain of the vintage Harvey Gamage in Maine and the Caribbean, he learned the skills of sailing a two-masted gaff-rigger. He was tempted to offer some tips to young Nate and the inexperienced Randy on the techniques of sailing such an old-fashioned rig but kept silent, except for suggesting to Nate that he install a rudder position indicator.

Randy, a gifted mechanic who restores antique autos, has installed a hydraulic steering system, which doesn’t transmit a sensitive feel for the rudder’s position. A helmsman could inadvertently position the rudder as a water brake, especially when sailing too close to the wind and “pinching” the sails. Nate saw the reasoning behind the suggestion and said he would follow the advice. Still, at one point in the final race, Randy recorded a GPS reading of 7.4 knots on a good broad reach with the staysail, jib and main all drawing. (Sarah Mead was a regular in past regattas and in 1973 and 1982 won the prestigious Governor’s trophy as overall winner in A and B classes, so she is not inherently a slow boat.)

After we crossed the finish line in the final race, we went through a somewhat embarrassing Chinese fire drill while dropping the sails in dealing with an 18-knot puff that laid the rail under within close sight of the race committee boat. Things were soon brought under control, and we puttered back to harbor at a top speed of 4 knots. But family sailing, reunions, friendships and preserving these sloops are what the regatta is all about. Families, along with very young children, piled on board — including one infant in a playpen set up in the cockpit.

Racing protests aren’t permitted, and a number of informal trophies (no silver) are awarded for one achievement or the other. The big prize, the State of Maine trophy, went to the 38-foot (LOD) Tannis, a perennial winner and the fastest and largest Friendship Sloop. The 1937 vessel, owned by Jack and Mary Cronin of Sturbridge, Mass., flies three jibs, main and topsail. Other Cronins own two other Friendships —Rights of Man and White Eagle.

The regatta is often cursed by fog or very light wind or both, which can result in the sloops dueling with bowsprits entangled and crew in the rigging fending off with no shouting, just playful banter. The smallest boat in the fleet, the engineless Echo, is propelled by oars, and on one occasion Sarah took her under tow to the starting line.

Sarah Mead was carefully built in 1965 by Newbert & Wallace of Thomaston, Maine, builders of commercial fishing vessels, during a lull in work projects. They used a half-hull model by Morse. “Unlike many wooden Friendship sloops, she still has all her original cedar planking and oak frames,” Nate Jones believes.

An English major at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., Nate graduated in 2005 and hopped around from job to job. He sailed from Baja to Hawaii, crewing on the brigantine Irving Johnson, and was raised in his mother’s sailing family, where they lived seasonally on LoudsIsland, just off MuscongusHarbor.

Nate and Heather, his artistic wife, live in his grandfather’s house on Louds Island in the summer and, during the winter, aboard a shrink-wrapped 1975 Columbia 32 sailboat, which he bought from his grandfather and is docked in South Portland and goes nowhere.

“I wanted to find a wooden boat with character, historically suitable for chartering out of Muscongus,” he says. “My father, Heather and I looked at a lot of boats and settled on Sarah Mead, which had been stored in a barn seven years. She was sound physically but a disaster rigging-wise and traditionally, with a cut-off bowsprit, a boomkin and lifelines, aluminum mast and Marconi mainsail rig.”

Sarah was always a pleasure sail, and her first owner was Dr. Henry White of Camden, Maine, who named her Sarah Mead after his daughter. He sold her in 1978 to Ted Hanks and hadn’t seen her for years before being invited aboard at the dock last July.

The boat then went to Curt Rauscher in the mid-1980s, who retired her to his barn. “We bought her in February 2006 for $8,500, equipped with a new 18-hp Volvo that alone was worth the price,” says Nate. “You could see daylight through her seams, and I caulked her all that winter and into May, when she was launched. Rauscher made us a wooden mast and bowsprit, and we got the old sails from Hanks. I did the traditional rigging. She leaked like a sieve and, in fact, her hull is still swelling, but we have an automatic bilge pump to handle that.”

They struck a deal with the private owner of MuscongusHarbor, which unfortunately for their charter business is no busy tourist destination. But they aren’t charged for a mooring there and pick up passengers at a small dock.

The first Friendship Sloops were actually built in Friendship and were known as MuscongusBay lobster smacks. “We think we have a historic niche here with our Friendship Sloop as the only charter out of Muscongus,” says Nate. “The bay is not a busy cruising ground because lobster traps are everywhere. We have solved that problem by caging our propeller so that we can run right over floats without snagging any lines.”

Sarah sails into October and schedules only with reservations. A three-hour morning cruise is $30 per passenger, the island tour $40, and sunset cruises $50. For information, go to www.sailmuscongus.com or call (207) 380-5460.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.